A view of Chengdu, capital of the Sichuan province in China. From a key trading centre 2,000 years ago on the southern silk route, the city is now the channel for logistics and economic exchange along the overland Eurasian Continental Bridge
A view of Chengdu, capital of the Sichuan province in China. From a key trading centre 2,000 years ago on the southern silk route, the city is now the channel for logistics and economic exchange along the overland Eurasian Continental Bridge

The centre of gravity of the world has been shifting for the last three centuries. The 19th century was undoubtedly the European century, with the British empire in its full glory. The 20th — although it witnessed the rise and fall of communism — would be remembered as the American century. And the 21st — despite the continued predominance of the United States — is likely to go down in history as the Asian century.

Oswald Spengler, a German historian, had fired the first warning shot when he wrote The Decline of the West: Form and Actuality at a time when World War I was winding down. Just a couple of years before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, Yale-based academic Paul Kennedy reiterated the warning in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000, in which he criticised Washington for imperial overstretch in its rivalry with the Soviet-led communist bloc. Peter Frankopan, who teaches global history at the University of Oxford, has now observed the rise of the Silk Roads as the centre of world power slips from the West to the East. “All roads used to lead to Rome,” he notes. “Today they lead to Beijing.”

In 2015, Frankopan’s book The Silk Roads: A New History of the World was published to wide acclaim. In this highly provocative book, he questioned Eurocentrism and explained how the area comprising the silk routes — mainly Russia, Central Asia, Iran, Afghanistan, China, Pakistan and India — have been the “engines” of the world. It is a sweeping history of the region stretching back to around 2,500 years and explains how most powerful networks of trade, ideas, peoples, religions and even diseases took root along this route.

Peter Frankopan’s sequel to his bestseller is a breezy and compelling contemporary history combined with an insight on emerging trends

Three years after his bestseller was published, Frankopan has come up with this slimmer, sibling volume. The New Silk Roads: The Present and Future of the World is a breezy but compelling contemporary history of the last three years combined with an insightful look at emerging and future trends. “The world’s past has been shaped by what happens along the Silk Roads,” he observes. “So too will its future.”

The book reminds us that we live in an increasingly inter-connected world despite this being the age of Trump and Brexit; although isolation and disengagement may be the leading themes in the Western world, it is the strengthening of the ties and mutual cooperation among the Silk Road countries which is the dominant trend. Among these countries, it is China which is shaping the future of the region and perhaps of the world.

In the last couple of decades, China’s economy has grown at breakneck pace. As recently as 2001, China’s GDP was only 39 percent of that of the US. By 2016 it was 114 percent and rising quickly. In 2017, at a time when the Chinese economic growth rate seems to have slightly cooled down compared to the last few years, Starbucks announced that it would open 2,000 shops in China by 2021 — this means a new Starbucks outlet every 15 hours. The increasing disposable income of Chinese consumers is the driving force behind the growing demand for French bread and wine in China.

With its giant economy, China is stepping out of the shadows and assuming an important role on the global stage with massive investments in a network of infrastructure projects — known as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) — in about 80 countries, whose combined populations represent 63 percent of the global population and their combined economic output accounts for one-third of global output.

By investing trillions of dollars in infrastructure projects — roads, ports, railways, power plants, etc — China aims to improve regional connectivity through the BRI and redirect the Chinese economy from dependence on the US towards neighbouring or regional countries. China will re-orient its economy by reducing the importance of low-cost manufacturing exports to the West and instead supplying investment goods to countries covered by the BRI. Moreover, China will gain stable and reliable access to energy and other natural resources.

Some critics have accused China of buying political influence and goodwill or even of power-grabbing through the BRI. Others have expressed concern over growing debt levels in the BRI countries, thereby turning those highly indebted countries into Chinese client states, and also of lopsided contracts which favour Chinese contractors. Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, for example, opined that in order to make it a win-win strategy, just as Africa opens up to China, China must also open up to Africa.

An important but unpopular point for the Western audience that the author makes is that for a country in Africa, Latin America, Central Asia or South Asia, Chinese offerings these days trump those of the US; as Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen explained it poignantly, “Other countries have lots of ideas, but no money. But for China, when it comes with an idea, it also comes with the money.”

Frankopan is critical of Trump’s trade-war policies towards China and believes that his flawed Iran policy, built on sanctions, is a road to nowhere and will impact Washington’s relations with European Union (EU) capitals in addition to driving Iran closer to China, Russia and the EU. He also discusses the current elections in Pakistan, the importance of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) projects as flagship projects of the BRI, and Islamabad’s pivot away from Washington and towards Beijing. He is quite sanguine about the emergence of Gwadar potentially as a major gateway and ponders if it can one day become the new Shanghai.

The pace of globalisation, with its changing influences and ownership structures, has also been explored at length in the book. A number of states along the Silk Road were subjected to colonisation by the British and other European countries. Art, manuscripts and sculptures were carted away to be displayed as trophies in European capitals. Now the trend has reversed, as the affluent and the well-heeled from countries along the Silk Road have been hunting for football club ownerships in Britain and Europe as trophies to be displayed.

The trend is not just restricted to football clubs, but to well-known and prestigious European brands as well, from Volvo to Harrods, and from the Odeon to the Waldorf. They are being snapped up with outright ownership or as partnerships by the wealthy elite in the East.

Frankopan has also captured the ironies of globalisation in his absorbing book: Osama Bin Laden has been held responsible for 9/11 and bringing down the World Trade Centre twin towers. The Carrara marble quarries in Italy have supplied the marble used in the construction of the Freedom Tower, built at the site of the twin towers in New York; Bin Laden’s family is the principal shareholder in the firm that owns the Carrara marble quarries.

“A new world is emerging in Asia, and it is not a free one,” Frankopan warns quite ominously. There is little concern for political plurality and human rights in this Asian economic resurgence, led by China. A number of countries in the region are characterised by extractive and non-inclusive political and/or economic institutions. In their influential book, Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty, noted political economists Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson posited that countries with non-inclusive and extractive institutions can grow for a while, but this growth is not sustainable.

They argued that even the erstwhile Soviet Union, under extractive and non-inclusive institutions, grew spectacularly from 1928 to 1960 but then ran out of steam, resulting in initial slowdown and then total collapse. After economic reforms, China’s economic institutions are more inclusive compared to the Soviet Union, but both authors questioned the sustainability of breathtaking Chinese economic growth in the presence of its non-inclusive and extractive political institutions. With the changing economic landscape emerging across the globe, this theory will be tested in China and some other Silk Road countries in the next few decades.

The New Silk Roads:
The Present and
Future of the World
By Peter Frankopan
Bloomsbury, UK
ISBN: 978-1526607423

The reviewer is an independent researcher based in Islamabad

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, June 23rd, 2019


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